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(From left): Florencia Rojo, Stephany Rose Spaulding, Vince Niski, Kevin Mitchell and Gia Irlando participate in a panel discussion on transparency and accountability in policing Feb. 6. [Express photo/Regan Foster]

For seven months, city law enforcement leaders and Southeast Colorado Springs residents have pondered some difficult questions: How can we come together and heal following a tragic event that drove a wedge into the community? And how can we work together to improve accountability, communication and transparency, should another tragedy occur?

The questions were spurred by the Aug. 3 fatal police-involved shooting of 19-year-old De’Von Bailey.

Although a grand jury ultimately declined to indict the officers, Bailey’s friends, family and supporters in the Southeast Colorado Springs neighborhood in which he was shot were unhappy with how Springs police and some city leaders handled the situation. In early February, six months after Bailey’s death, a group formed to explore how to improve accountability in policing. From that citizen-led group, the Justice for De’Von Bailey Editorial Board, arose the Law Enforcement Accountability Project.

A delegation of Springs residents is slated to visit the University of Texas Law School in Austin, Texas, today for an academic symposium on civilian oversight of law enforcement. The delegates are expected to report back April 2 as part of an accountability project presentation on oversight models and the benefits of such programs.

The trip and update follow a tense-but-respectful community gathering that took place on a snowy Feb. 6.

A standing-room-only crowd flocked to Relevant Word Christian Cultural Center in the Hillside neighborhood for a panel discussion on police accountability, transparency and community relations. It was the first in a series of planned meetings designed to foster dialogue among the stakeholders on the quest to find a solution.

“The tragedy of De’Von Bailey has traumatized the community and the community has been severely torn, but not torn apart,” said the Rev. Promise Lee, pastor at Relevant Word and the evening’s moderator.

The panelists included: Florencia Rojo, an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado College and adviser to a student-led project studying police transparency and best practices in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Denver and Boulder; the Rev. Stephany Rose Spaulding, chair of Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a candidate for U.S. Senate; Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski; Kevin Mitchell, Colorado Springs NAACP Criminal Justice Committee co-chair; and Gia Irlando, an outgoing community relations ombudsperson for the Denver Office of the Independent Monitor.

The meeting drew hundreds from throughout the city, including Southeast City Councilor Yolanda Avila, City Council President Richard Skorman, and Councilors David Geislinger, Tom Strand and Wayne Williams, as well as El Paso County Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez, whose 4th District includes Southeast Colorado Springs.

“Some of us are angry, some of us are hurt,” Lee said. “Some of us are angry and hurt, but … this is a sacred space.

“We’re not dependent on or relying on government officials or the police chief to solve this community problem. This is going to be a dialogue and conversation with some thoughts and ideas, and the impetus is on us, the community. I believe the answer lies within us and we have to be the ones to do this.”

Over the course of two hours, audience and panel members heard how the Springs stacked up to other major Colorado cities in terms of police transparency; learned about Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor and its work offering oversight of the Denver police and sheriff’s departments; and asked pointed questions on topics ranging from the type of data the police should be collecting and how that information should be disseminated to the community, to whether the city and the nation have a racist history when it comes to policing and what type of diversity training cadets and veteran officers undergo to combat inherent bias.

“We can be civil and still speak hard truths,” Mitchell said. “They need to be addressed.”

“We’re not dependent on or relying on government officials or the police chief to solve this community problem. This is going to be a dialogue and conversation with some thoughts and ideas, and the impetus is on us, the community. I believe the answer lies within us and we have to be the ones to do this.”
— The Rev. Promise Lee

Many of the questions put Niski in the hot seat. The chief had previously expressed skepticism about a citizen call for third-party oversight such as a community-review board or an external investigation in cases of police-involved shooting.

At the core of the conversation was a community call for accountability and transparency.

“Is that something,” Spaulding asked Niski, “that you would be willing to receive?”

“Yes,” the chief promptly replied, to applause.

“Between now and April,” Spaulding further pressed, “are you willing to sit down and have a conversation with the researchers who are willing to do this work?”

“Yes,” Niski again answered, to further applause.

Mitchell noted there are “a lot of common-sense steps” that can take place before April 2 to help mend the rift.

“How about getting out to the community and talking to the community?” he asked. “We can collect all these numbers, but you don’t even know who you’re protecting and serving. This is the problem: there’s this tension and fear about the unknown.”

He implored Niski to send officers into the neighborhood where Bailey was shot not to police, but to participate.

“We all have titles,” Mitchell said. “We call ourselves activists but at the end of the day we are working for the community. We are supposed to be working together, so roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work.”

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Niski stood by his department’s recruitment, training and professionalism, and he said a critical part of adjudicating officer-involved incidents is understanding why an officer was forced to make a split-second call. Still, he acknowledged the importance of community trust to officers’ ability to do their jobs.

“We do derive our powers from the community,” he said. “This meeting is part of the discussion that we need to have and we want to have.”

In the end, all panelists agreed, the solution will not come quickly or easily. They also concurred it is worth the effort.

“We are doing very difficult work,” Spaulding said. “This work is long-term.

“It’s not just having conversations with police officers, it is having conversations with each other. It is seeing how our institutions of higher education are working toward polices. It is writing legislation. It is making sure everyone in this room is registered to vote.

“When we abdicate our power and people use it against us,” she concluded, “that’s because we failed to do what we are supposed to do, as well.”

regan.foster@southeastexpress.org

What’s next
A delegation from Colorado Springs is scheduled to attend an academic symposium on civilian oversight of law enforcement today. The delegates are expected to report back April 2 as part of an accountability project review of  oversight models and the benefits of such programs.

Founding Editor and General Manager Regan Foster holds dual bachelor's degrees in journalism and Spanish, with a minor in Latin American studies, from the University of Iowa and a master's degree in journalism with specialization in political reporting and media management from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Over the course of nearly two decades, she has worked and lived in Alaska, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Colorado. Before being tasked with launching the Southeast Express, Foster was the youngest person and first woman ever hired to serve as The Pueblo Chieftain's editorial page editor, where she also worked as both the entertainment editor and the Life editor.

Editor

Founding Editor and General Manager Regan Foster holds dual bachelor's degrees in journalism and Spanish and a master's degree in journalism with specialization in political reporting and media management.